Sunday, February 3, 2013

Of the Breath

Spirit can be found everywhere. As William Blake wrote in "Auguries of Innocence":

To see a world in a grain of sand,
And a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,
And eternity in an hour.

Or this from Rilke (translated by James Hollis):

I find you in all these things,
to which I am a brother in all,
in which minuscule seed you minutely hide yourself
and in the Great, you greatly reveal yourself.

Spirit even resides in the breath you are taking right now.

Many thousands of years ago, wise women and men - the sages, priestesses, gurus, and imams of their day - observed that living things tended to breathe, and non-living things did not. They surmised, quite correctly, that breath was very important to life. In addition, they saw beyond the physical and connected breath with Spirit (the word "spirit" comes from the Latin root, spiritus, which literally means "of the breath").

The Upanishads, the oldest Hindu scriptures, some of which were composed perhaps as far back as the 5th century BCE, contain a vision of the Divine as an all-pervading breath known as Brahma: "All this is Brahma. Meditate on the visible world as beginning, ending, and breathing in Brahma" (Khândogya-Upanishad, 8.7.1).

The book of Genesis in the Old Testament directly connects the breath with the Divine: "Then the LORD God formed man of dust from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being" (New American Standard Bible, 2:7).

Each day, according to Dr. Richard C. Miller in The Breath of Life, we breathe approximately 24,000 times and exchange over 10,000 gallons of oxygen. Thankfully, we have an autonomic nervous system that regulates this breath for us unconsciously or we would never get anything done! Many of these breaths go by unnoticed by the conscious mind. Unless, of course, something happens that causes us not to be able to breathe.

There is a Zen teaching story about a student who comes to the Master and tells him, "I'm getting really bored with just feeling my breath coming in and going out all the time. Don't you have a meditation that is more exciting?" The Zen Master replied, "Yes. You are now ready for a greater teaching. Follow me." With that, the Master led the student into a courtyard where there was a large barrel of water. "Gaze into the barrel," said the Master. As the student leaned over and looked in, the Zen Master suddenly pushed the student's head into the water. The Master was quite strong, and he was able to hold the student under the water for quite a while, even though the student struggled desperately. Finally, the Master let the student come up for air, and as the student gasped the Master asked, "So... is that breath boring?"

The breath is one of those things in life that we can call "nothing special." However, when we pay attention to the breath on purpose, it becomes something very special. When we devote attention to the breath, we are engaged in a "devotional" practice. Devoting attention to even just a few breaths can help us connect consciously to this moment as it is, and to the Divine within.

It is almost as if Spirit has hidden Itself in the most obvious place.

As the poet Kabir wrote:

Are you looking for me? I am in the next seat.
Our shoulders are touching.
You will not find me in the stupas,
not in Indian shrine rooms,
nor in synagogues, nor in cathedrals:
not in masses, nor kirtans,
not in legs winding around your own neck,
nor in eating nothing but vegetables.
When you really look for me, you will see me instantly --
you will find me in the tiniest house of time.
Kabir says: Student, tell me, what is God?
He is the breath inside the breath.